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On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978

Viking Lander: Creating the Science Teams
[203] Designing and fabricating the Viking lander was a difficult task. Engineers at JPL could draw on their experiences with Mariner systems as they worked on the orbiter, but the lander team was tackling a new field. The men in California completed the orbiter with relatively few technical difficulties; but the contractors at Martin Marietta in Denver, breaking much new technological ground, encountered many problems. The lander was far more complex than NASA's previous unmanned lander, the lunar Surveyor, and Viking's goals were more ambitious. Viking was twice as heavy as Surveyor; it had two cameras for stereophotography and a complement of very sophisticated scientific instruments, and it was destined to land on a planet far more distant than Earth's own moon. The Viking lander represented a series of clever inventions in answer to specific problems. While this inventiveness can be seen clearly in the creation and fabrication of the biology instrument and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, the NASA-contractor team also developed a host of other new solutions to meet new technological demands.
As with the orbiter, the first priorities of the Viking managers in dealing with the lander were establishing spacecraft specifications, selecting an organization to build it, and forming key teams to do the work- industrial, managerial. and scientific teams. Team-building began months before the official approval of the Viking program when Jim Martin at Langley Research Center selected some of his top people from the Lunar Orbiter team. For deputy project manager Martin selected Israel Taback, spacecraft manager for Lunar Orbiter. Iz, as he was called by his colleagues, had joined the Langley staff in 1942 as a mechanical engineer on graduation from Cooper Union Engineering School. He successively headed the Instrument calibration laboratory-a group developing aircraft flight instruments-and the navigation and communications branch at the Langley center. Gerald A. Soffen, Viking project scientist, once noted that while Taback might have looked like a tailor among the engineers and managers, he was the wizard behind the Viking lander. If any one man could be awarded the title "father of the lander," it was Taback. 1
[204] During the summer and fall of 1968. Taback supervised the progress of the contractors studying various technological approaches for landing on Mars. General Electric was investigating hard-landers; McDonnell Douglas Astronautics was examining soft-landers; the Boeing Company was studying propulsion and landing systems; and Hughes Aircraft was looking into low-cost landers, support modules, and mission reliability. In Denver, the Martin Marietta Corporation was winding up a study of direct versus out-of-orbit entry for the lander. 2 These early studies helped define the shape and size a Mars lander would have for a Titan-launched mission. They also drew attention to subjects that would require special handling. Taback and his associates at Langley worked constantly with the contractors so that their latest ideas for alternative approaches to lander design could be debated and evaluated in NASA circles.
As Taback's people and the contractors worked on general approaches to lander design, Jim Martin took steps to begin definition of the science payload. In August 1968, he established a science instrument working group under the chairmanship of G. Calvin Broome. Broome, who had joined Langley in June 1962, was manager of the photographic subsystem of Lunar Orbiter, overseeing design, fabrication, testing, and operation of the instrument that would photograph the lunar surface. Just 30 years old in the summer of 1968, Cal Broome was given a major responsibility for Viking. His working group, a subdivision of the Mission Design Steering Committee, would oversee all the preliminary planning for the scientific payloads for the orbiter and lander. Essential to its work was an understanding of the interactions among the various lander experiments, especially the interfaces among the surface sampler, biological instrument, and gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer experiments being proposed for the mission. 3
With the definition of the lander and science hardware taking shape, Jim Martin needed a project scientist. He first took measure of Gerald Soffen during a 1967 briefing, when Soffen, a senior scientist at JPL, described his abbreviated microscope as a possible life detector. The scientist impressed Martin with his technical competence and his enthusiasm for Mars exploration. Jerry Soffen, 42 years old in 1968, was one of the early members of the exobiology community. After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1960, he had been a U.S. Public Health Service fellow at the New York University School of Medicine. Shortly after he joined the JPL staff, he took part in devising instruments for detecting life on Mars, in the science planning for Mariner B, and in the development of automated biology laboratories. Before the demise of Voyager, Soffen had been deputy project scientist for that endeavor. With this background, he had the necessary stature in the scientific community that Martin was sure would be needed by the project scientist of a 1973 Mars landing mission. 4
In August 1968, Edgar M. Cortright, Langley director, asked JPL Director William H. Pickering to assign five JPL staff members to the [205] Virginia center for six to nine months of temporary duty. Of those requested, four had taken part in capsule systems advanced development activities at JPL. The fifth was Soffen. Pickering and his managers were unhappy about this request. At that time, Langley and JPL were competing over Mars mission proposals, and did not seem to be in JPL's best interests to send its specialists to help the competition. Pickering told Cortright that if Langley wanted Soffen, then Soffen would have to resign his position and join the civil service staff at Langley. Soffen recalled that he felt like a pawn in a game of planetary chess. Cortright could not promise that the Langley proposal for a 1973 Mars mission would be approved, and if it were not, Soffen could find himself a solitary scientist awash in a sea of engineers in Tidewater Virginia. If he stayed at JPL, he would be able to keep alive his vital contacts with other space scientists, but he might also miss the opportunity to lead the first landed scientific investigations of Mars. Cortright ultimately persuaded Pickering to agree to Soffen's temporary assignment to the Langley Mars 73 planning project, but only after an appeal to John Naugle at NASA Headquarters. 5
Reflecting on his decision to move from California, Soffen commented that morale and leadership also affected his desire to make the change. In the months immediately following the termination of Voyager, the planners at JPL were in turmoil. At Langley, the situation was different. Cortright and Martin wanted their 1973 project to become a reality, and Martin especially pursued this goal with single-minded zeal. If sheer will and determination could make something happen, then Langley would be the center that landed spacecraft on Mars. Appreciating this aggressive spirit, Soffen forced the issue of his being detailed to Langley by purchasing a house in Hampton, Virginia. In the face of a determined Soffen and a solid front in the NASA management, Pickering had to let Soffen go east. 6